The Standard Times recently did a story about Thanksgiving traditions. One of those traditions began 22 years ago when SouthCoast football officials met for breakfast before the Thanksgiving Day games. It seems that football has become part of the Thanksgiving ritual for many people. For the record, I am not one of them and I do not know much about the history of football with Thanksgiving.
According to the Detroit Lions website they have been playing Thanksgiving football since 1934. In 1890 Harvard proposed to Yale that football be played between the two schools on Thanksgiving. In 1855, William Sumner of Milton, Massachusetts had to withdraw from a game of football on Thanksgiving due to injuries he received from an assault the week before. Football was known on the south coast in the nineteenth century. Thomas Rodman, son of abolitionist Samuel Rodman of New Bedford, learned to play football at Friends Academy in the 1830s. In early December 1859 the staff of two newspapers, the Republican Standard and the Mercury played a best of five series. According to James D’Wolf Lovett, football at this time was a much different game. Play was continuous (unless the ball went out of bounds) until one team got the ball over their opponent’s boundary line. One goal ended the game. With the series tied at two games apiece both teams decided not to play the deciding game because as the Republican Standard noted, “the best of feeling prevailed”.
It was baseball, not football that was the traditional Thanksgiving Day sport of choice as long as 150 years ago. On Thanksgiving Day 1858 the Union and Bristol County baseball clubs of New Bedford met on the City Common for a game. The Evening Standard began their report of the game “From time immemorial Thanksgiving and Fast days have been set apart for ball playing…” suggesting that perhaps baseball had long been established as a tradition on Thanksgiving in New Bedford. The report noted that “The regular Ball season is considered to close with Thanksgiving”.
On Thanksgiving Day 1859 and 1860 the Franklin Base Ball Club played an inter-squad game at a location on the southern end of County Street. Both teams celebrated after the games with dinners of turkey and oysters.The Civil War most likely interrupted this ball playing tradition (or at least the local newspapers understandably decided it wasn’t important enough to report). By 1866 baseball was once again played in New Bedford in November and in 1867 Thanksgiving Day baseball games featured the New Bedford Boot and Shoe Manufactory, the Annawan Base Ball Club, the National Base Ball Club and the Wamsutta Base Ball Club.
I am not sure when the tradition of football replaced baseball as the Thanksgiving Day sport. Perhaps it gradually made the transformation as the ball became harder and wintry weather made play difficult as the rules evolved. Softball made its introduction in the 1880s in Chicago as in indoor sport at Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day 1887 a game of baseball was played on the Polo Grounds, presumably by these softball rules. Most likely people wanted a sporting diversion on Thanksgiving that could be played in rain or snow and football offered that diversion.